States Must Lead in Adapting to Big Weather Events

The following op-ed was first published in The Oklahoman on May 16, 2018.

Recent wildfires in Oklahoma and New Mexico forced evacuations, ignited by what the U.S. Drought Monitor calls an "exceptional drought." As extreme weather frequency and costs rise due to climate change, state governments can, and must, play a role in preparing farmers and rural communities.

Nearly one-quarter of the U.S. was in drought as of May 1. Many southwestern states have been hit hard. Pasture and hay is running short in parts of Oklahoma, and cattle producers in Kansas, Colorado and Texas are on alert for additional wildfires.

Last year, wildfires caused by “exceptional drought” burned an estimated 660,000 acres of pasture in Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Texas. More extreme weather hit farmers and ranchers around the country, including Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the South, droughts and wildfires in the Midwest and heat waves in the West. These events weigh heavily on state budgets. In 2017, 16 climate disasters had losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States. The cumulative costs exceeded $300 billion — a U.S. record.

Climate change is already affecting U.S. agriculture. In the Midwest and Northeast, for example, temperatures have risen year-round, growing seasons have become longer and there have been more extreme precipitation events. Researchers at Columbia University reported that the arid western Plains have shifted 140 miles east — changing the agricultural landscape. The U.S. Department of Agriculture identified major risks to farmers based on future climate trends including: extreme precipitation, increased flooding, severe wind and storm hazards, warmer temperatures and drought, competition from weeds and invasive plants, new populations of insects, and increased risk of pathogens.

State governments are on the front lines responding to these events, including immediate and long-term effects on agriculture. In response, states are creating climate adaptation plans, which can reduce costs for governments and risks for farmers.

Unfortunately, these proactive states often focus on urban areas and neglect agriculture. When my organization looked at state climate adaptation plans around the country, only 18 included agriculture. Of the states battling wildfires, only Colorado has an agricultural climate adaptation plan.

Adaptation strategies at the state level include adjusting planting patterns, using resilient crops, implementing sustainable grazing or adding cover crops. These strategies have multiple benefits, like soil health, water quality protection and wildlife habitat management. Oklahoma has been one of the leaders in advancing soil health practices and is exploring a soil health marketplace.

Climate change is still stigmatized and viewed as a partisan issue rather than a challenge we face together. But there are signs the stigma is lifting. Rural communities in the Midwest and Appalachia are developing strategies for climate resilience that reflect longer-term goals for community development.

State governments must do their part. Climate adaptation strategies for agriculture need a policy framework including farm financing and credit, research and technical assistance, insurance and conservation programs and other rural development initiatives.

Farmers and ranchers are dealing with years of low income and rising debt. Climate risk is now added to that economic uncertainty. State governments, engaging closely with farmers and ranchers, can start planning — or pay an increasingly steep price.